The modern goalkeeper’s greatest attacking tool is rooted in diverse shot-stopping history from all over the world…
It’s a freezing cold Saturday evening in Liverpool. Darkness has set in over Anfield, its flood lights illuminate the footballing spectacle below. Manchester United are the visitors, and are pushing late for an equaliser. Liverpool’s 1-0 lead against their bitter Mancunian rivals, if sustained, will give them their 13th consecutive Premier League victory.
Anthony Martial has just missed a gaping opportunity to level the scores, but United maintain the pressure. Liverpool gain temporary relief from a scuffed volley that bounces into Alisson’s hands. Most are expecting him to run the clock down.
Alisson spots Mohamed Salah loose in the United half, deserted by the away side’s desperate late push. He quickly switches the ball into his left hand, reaching out in front of him and giving it a little toss before ‘winding’ his right foot through the ball at a near-45 degree angle. Salah brings the ball - back-spinning at speed - down deftly, and races through on goal. He beats David De Gea. The Kop roars. Liverpool 2-0 Manchester United.
It remains a happy New Year on Merseyside.
The technique that Alisson pulled off is commonly known as the sidewinder, or side volley. It’s a staple of the modern goalkeeper, but requires a particularly skilled distributor to pull it off. Few goalkeepers around the world use ‘pure’ versions of the sidewinder, and many of them are concentrated in the Premier League. You could argue that it is only really Jordan Pickford, Alisson, Ederson, and more recently Aaron Ramsdale, who use the perfect form of the sidewinder in England’s top flight.
In the past, the likes of Adam Federici (of Reading, Bournemouth and Stoke) was an earlier practitioner of the skill in England. Pepe Reina put it in the spotlight, refining his own technique (and becoming ever more flexible) in the process. Abroad, South African National Team captain and goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune often shares videos of his sublime sidewinding on social media.
But it wasn’t in England, nor in fact Europe or Africa, that it’s believed the sidewinder originated from – or at least not in its most recognisable format. The modern-day sidewinder comprises a relatively flat, quick punt, with the ball connecting with the goalkeeper’s opposite foot at around hip height. The unique and almost showman like nature of the sidewinder is believed to have originated from South America – the home of footballing flare.
But can we pinpoint the birth of the sidewinder? Is it a modern technique, or something that dates back further? The sidewinder hails from a period much earlier than many would imagine - and may not only be exclusive to football - and we’re on a mission to find out just when and where it was first used.
There was once a time, not long ago, that typing the word ‘sidewinder’ into the Google search bar would return few results of relevance. In the early to mid-2010s, what was to become a goalkeeper’s greatest attacking tool only a few years later was something of an unknown entity, practised only by the most cultured and progressive of the world’s goalkeepers.
Black, white, and grainy, the earliest video footage of goalkeepers portrays old school shot-stoppers who were intent on getting the ball as far up the pitch as possible, aiming to cause a myriad of disturbances to an equally brutish defensive line. Their distribution consisted of punting rock-hard footballs from tough leather boots and (sometimes) bare hands (that’s right – goalkeepers wore gloves before the second half of the 20th century), with a customary, small toss just before releasing the ball onto the foot consistently apparent.
Goalkeeping distribution in the formative years of the game was direct, and somewhat primitive. Footage from a game between Rotherham Town (a precursor of Rotherham United) and Thornhill (a precursor of Rotherham City, which disbanded in 1925) in 1902 shows a goalkeeper, unidentified, toe-punting the ball up field from a goal kick in a penalty box akin to no man’s land and punching a ball into orbit directly from a shot. Although it is slightly off camera, we can see the goalkeeper gather the ball using a ‘cup save’ and punting the ball far up field within a split second of taking possession.
Some seventy years later, the nature of goalkeeping distribution wasn’t particularly different. Distribution from the hands remained direct and, to this day, has become somewhat iconic. In December 2021, a video captioned ‘80s goalkeepers just booting it’ went viral on Twitter, even prompting a light hearted feature from The Athletic on the topic. Yet, as entertaining (and some may even argue, refreshing) as this gung-ho distribution method was, it simply became incompatible with modern day football.
The greats of the 1970s and 80s – the likes of Ray Clemence, Gordon Banks, Sepp Maier, Pat Jennings, and Jean Marie-Pfaff – were showing some evolution in their distribution techniques, but the foundations of these forward assaults on opposition defences still very much followed the notion of getting the ball as far forward as quickly as possible.
Footage of Jennings from the 1970s does show the Irishman using the newer left-hand, right-foot (or vice-versa) punt technique that forms the basis of the sidewinder and modern ‘drop kick’ distributions. Maier was another who preferred this technique to kick long.
The German was a maverick in many ways, and unafraid to pull out his unique penknife of rainbow flicks and mazy dribbles up-field, so it’s not surprising to see Maier – nor Jennings – being one of the first to deploy a more modern punt technique. Ray Clemence is pictured to be using a right hand, left-foot technique in the late 1960s.
Based on the limited photographic and video evidence available, it seems that the late 1960s was the earliest decade in which a form of what was to become the side volley was displayed by an elite goalkeeper. However, neither style truly mimics the style we see today. There is a large gap between the transition to the left hand/right foot (or vice versa) technique first deployed in the 1960s, and the use of the ‘actual’ sidewinder.
Similarly, it is unlikely that the sidewinder as we know it had European roots. Whilst something that could be deemed a very early prototype of the technique was deployed by European goalkeepers, the connection is loose.
In England, ex-Reading FC, Bournemouth and Stoke goalkeeper Adam Federici was an early sidewinder pioneer. Arriving in England and initially signing for Wolves, Federici joined Reading in 2005 and used the sidewinder from his early days at the Madejski. The same year, Pepe Reina would join Liverpool and begin to implement the innovative distribution technique.
The Spanish connection isn’t unbelievable. After all, Spain and South America are culturally similar when it comes to the beautiful game, with their domestic and national sides both proponents of a newer, more sleek and attractive type of ball-playing football. Likewise, in the case of Federici, it isn’t unbelievable to say that the Australian game wasn’t a stranger to similar footballing innovation.
Real Sociedad goalkeeper Mathew Ryan was another who utilised the sidewinder in the late 2000s whilst with the Central Coast Mariners of the A-League. Given the nature of Aussie sports - daring, stylish, and pretty damn cool - could it be fair to assume that their approach to goalkeeping style follows a similar ideology?
However, many sources again point back to South America. Omar Zeeni of the InsideThe18 Podcast discussed ex-Boca Juniors goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri’s usage of the sidewinder. The earliest video footage of Abbondanzieri’s sidewinder hails from the early 2000s - mainly the 2006 World Cup in Germany, in which he started for Argentina. However, it is known that Abbondanzieri used this technique from a much earlier point, most likely from the early 1990s with Rosario Central.
Ex-Kaizer Chiefs’ goalkeeper coach, Lee Baxter, who worked with the aforementioned Khune, furthered the legitimacy of this theory to Goalkeeper.com. From his experiences coaching around the world, Baxter spoke of how he had seen Argentinian goalkeepers as young as 15 or 16 using the sidewinder to perfection, and was taught the technique himself by a Brazilian goalkeeper coach whilst playing in Japan.
Colombian goalkeeper Carlos Navarro Montoya was pictured appearing to execute the beginning of a sidewinder. It’s difficult to place a date on the photo - it would have been taken, at latest, in 2009 as Montoya retired that year - so it is likely that it was taken in the early 2000s, judging by the gloves and his retirement date. Yet, the question stands: if he was potentially using the sidewinder late in his career, would he not have been using it earlier, too? Montoya played from the 1980s, after all.
By the end of the 1990s, the sidewinder had already spread across the world. Another lesser known sidewinder-user was South African goalkeeper Rowen Fernandez. Fernandez, now 43, was an ex-teammate of current Kaiser Chiefs number one Itumeleng Khune, whose sidewinder is a work of art.
Fernandez began his professional career in the late 1990s, and was allegedly the man who Khune modelled his sidewinder off, according to Rainer Dinkelacker in conversation with South African sports website SoccerLaduma. Rowen was the first one to use a side-volley. ‘He came up with that [and] Khune started to copy it when he was working with Rowen’, explained Dinkelacker.
‘What I did was to tell them that, after training, we’d do something with the side-volley and use targets. For diagonal kicks, we put cones up and told them to put the ball between two cones from over 40 or 50 metres. This is what I did, but Fernandez started it and Khune learned from him in training’.
Although it is difficult to track any links Fernandez had to South America, this route is naturally open to resolution. Both Fernandez, and Khune and the Kaiser Chiefs, were contacted for comment by Goalkeeper.com.
One conclusion we can make, purely by eye, is that from around 1970 to this day, the punt technique of goalkeepers across the world has slowly become more ‘horizontal’. By that, we mean that the point of contact between foot and ball has occurred at a steeper angle. Even in the goalkeepers who don’t deploy a strict sidewinder, techniques are generally much more controlled.
If we compare Nick Pope to Peter Shilton, for example, neither goalkeeper executes a sidewinder. However, you can see a natural evolution in technique from Pope. The kick is still high and long, but his shape whilst executing the punt is much more streamlined.
See Lukasz Fabianski, or Mat Ryan; neither goalkeeper uses a standard ‘punt’, but neither is their distribution textbook sidewinder. They use variations of the sidewinder that allow for slightly more control and accuracy, but are not quite as targeted due to their height.
One of the most interesting aspects of the sidewinder’s usage is the context of the game when it’s. Goalkeepers such as Alisson and Ederson do use the sidewinder to distribute over long range, and we’ve seen this in Alisson’s assist vs Manchester United. They are often used on the counter attack as their low trajectory and fast pace is particularly troublesome for a defence having to track back.
Long throws tended to be the more innovative distribution method of choice, yet these were also much more aloof (high and long) than the more cricket bowl-like throw that we tend to see today. The overarm handball-type throw was another that was popular and used frequently by the likes of Lev Yashin before goalkeepers such as Pfaff. Before the sidewinder came into play, distribution in the form of throws was arguably more accurate than kicking.
There are obvious similarities between the sidewinder and the long throw, both technically and tactically. Used to distribute over the medium distance, mainly, the aforementioned cricket bowl-style throw tends to skim the surface of the pitch at pace, aiming to be received at lower-leg height by the outfield player.
The sidewinder’s versatility means it can be adapted for use over long, medium or short distances. Some goalkeepers almost supplant the throw with a flat variant of the sidewinder. Early in the 2021-22 season, Aaron Ramsdale epitomised this in a match-winning, complete performance against Leicester City.
The clip shows Ramsdale executing the sidewinder at its iconic horizontal position. But why didn’t Ramsdale throw the ball, or put it on the floor?
Two words: pace and accuracy.
Ramsdale has, although only by a fraction of a second or so, put his team on the attack in one decisive, swift movement. He has completely turned the momentum of the game on its head. The pace of the sidewinder arguably takes Leicester’s attacking third by surprise; even psychologically, the view of a goalkeeper distributing from his hands is perhaps less ‘challengeable’ or ‘interceptable’ as it would be if the ball was placed on the floor or thrown.
We see this mid-range sidewinder used elsewhere in the world, too. Barcelona’s Marc Andre Ter-Stegen is a proficient user of the technique, playing perfectly into the Catalan club’s tika-taka style.
Ederson, as mentioned earlier in the article, is another who utilises the technique over a range of distances. Not only does he get Manchester City on the attack, but he also forces the defensive line - and full backs especially - to push up.
The sidewinder is continuously being furthered in its usage and its technical execution. Widely advocated and taught at youth level across the world, it’s a skill that is very much one that looks to the future, rather than behind to its past.
However, nothing would exist without its invention. Although it’s difficult to put an exact date and name on the origin of the sidewinder, we can safely say that it came from South America, and was likely pioneered in an early form in the 1980s. It has evolved into different distribution techniques throughout the decades, and is now at the peak of its usage.
The evolution of the sidewinder is ongoing. In goalkeeping, it represents the extent of the artistic innovation that football’s most mysterious position crafts within its shadowy depths.
And boy, does it look good.
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